I've heard countless stories from friends, clients or my sibling about cramping up in the last few miles of a marathon and barely being able to even walk.
Sometimes the cramps can be worked out, but often they persist and there are no strategies for overcoming muscle cramps while running that can save the race or even the entire training season.
The most frustrating thing may be that they can come out of nowhere, and what causes muscle cramps while running is somewhat unknown.
My readings and research have unveiled two distinct types of cramps during exercise:
Muscle overloading and fatigue cramps from overuse. The cramping is painful in the muscle (often the calf muscle) that is being overworked.
Electrolyte imbalance muscle cramps that develop due to extensive sweating and low sodium.
These cramps may occur even if there is no muscle overuse and cramping may occur in multiple muscle groups.
It is important to determine which type of cramp you are experiencing or are prone to getting, so you can prevent muscle cramps while running. In this article, I will take a closer look at the two types and recommend our favorite remedies for muscle cramps as well as what to do to avoid muscle cramps after running in the future.
But before begin, just make sure it is actually cramps that you are experiencing. Runners often confuse bonking and fatigue during a marathon with cramps.
# MUSCLE OVERLOADING AND FATIGUE
These muscles that remain in a shortened position while running are the most vulnerable.
The true physiological explanation for how the cramping develops is a bit complex, but basically the neural mechanisms that are supposed to inhibit muscle contraction are depressed and excitatory activity (chemical and electrical synapses that fire the muscle) of the muscle fibers is enhanced.
The result is an intense, sustained involuntary muscle contraction.
- Responds to passive stretching and massage
- Sudden onset and constant cramping (compared to on and off)
- Localized and asymmetric (in a specific muscle)
- Poor stretching practices
- Older age
- Poor or insufficient conditioning
- History of cramping
- Excessive exercise intensity and duration
Immediate treatment of these types of cramps include:
- Icing affected muscle group
- Passive stretching and massage
- Active contraction of antagonist muscle group (e.g. contracting hamstring to stretch quadriceps).
- Reducing exercise intensity and duration
- Making biomechanical adjustments
- Improving conditioning and range of motion
- Practicing relaxation while exercising
Nutritionally, there isn't much you can do to prevent overload and fatigue cramps.
Typically, these types of cramps are training related, so you'll need to incorporate some innovative workouts within your marathon training schedule or training plan to help prevent the possibility of fatigue cramps.
My advice is to do more workouts where you challenge the body to run faster as it gets tired or practice running on tired legs.
This will help prepare the muscles for the fatigue they will experience during the race and be better prepared to run relaxed.
I also recommend "Combo Workouts".
Combo workouts basically entail doing some type of tempo run hilly run to tire they legs and running a set of fast 400 or 800 meter repeats the latter part of the workout to practice generating explosive muscle contractions when the muscles are fatigues.
Finally, I definitely recommend including more strength work into your training to increase you efficiency, which means your muscles will need to contract fewer muscle fibers to perform at the same level of effort/pace,
As the duration of exercise increases and sweating continues, a whole body sodium deficit may develop, especially if the sodium and chloride lost in sweat are not replaced promptly.
These electrolyte changes and the accompanying fluid shifts in the body can cause certain neuromuscular junctions to become hyperexcitable, resulting in cramping.
Dehydration is very often an underlying cause.
- Cramping begins in the more highly active muscle groups like the hamstrings and quadriceps.
- Cramping is intermittent (vs. constant)
- Gradual onset that typically begins with fasciculations-small muscle contractions ("twitches") that are just barely visible under the skin.
- Usually begins in the more highly active muscle groups like the hamstrings and quadriceps.
- Poor daily intake of fluids and electrolytes
- High sweat rate, high sweat sodium concentration or both
- Poor hydration and/or salt intake before and during exercise.
- Massage and icing to help relax the muscles
- If muscle cramping is severe or hyponatremia is present, IV fluids and electrolytes may be needed
Potassium, calcium and magnesium supplements are not recommended.
These minerals and foods that are rich in them will typically not provide and relief for this type of cramp
- Immediate electrolyte replacement at first sign of muscle twitches/cramps
- Take in a high-salt sports drink or 3 grams of salt mixed into 0.5 L of a regular carbohydrate sport drink.
- Not overdrinking fluids, especially low- or no-sodium fluids
- Try to match sodium intake closely with individual sodium losses through sweat
- Maintenance of hydration AND electrolyte balance before and during exercise
- Maintenance of overall daily salt and fluid intake
If you frequently struggle with the electrolyte deficit cramps, consider changing up your pre and during run fluid choice.
Most sports drinks on the market are what sports scientists call isotonic, which means they contain a carbohydrate solution that is at 6-8% concentration.
Because the sugar concentration of most sport drinks is higher than that of most body fluid, they are not readily absorbed into the blood stream and are thus not optimal for hydration.
Accordingly, your best choice before and during your run would be a heavily diluted sports beverage or water with an electrolyte spray.
By diluting your sports drink or using electrolyte substitutes, you provide your body with the best combination of electrolyte replacement and immediate absorption.
Likewise, electrolytes, especially sodium and potassium, reduce urine output, speed the rate at which fluids empty the stomach, promote absorption from the small intestine, and encourage fluid retention.
@ Jackie San